Before there was Jack Skellington preceding Christmas with nightmares, Billy Bob Thornton giving Santa Claus a bad name, or rare exports maiming innocent reindeer, it was the Grinch who first turned the tables on the festive season, daring to be indifferent (after Scrooge, of course).
The first of Dr. Seuss’ acclaimed children’s stories to be adapted to feature length – beating The Cat In The Hat and Horton Hears A Who to cinemas – How The Grinch Stole Christmas is a staple of the holiday period and a triumph in passive-aggressive seasonal comedy.
The story revolves around the titular Grinch, a cynical misanthrope who has spent the majority of his life living in exile on the outskirts of Whoville. Bullied out of town as a child due to his green visage and general disregard for Christmas convention, the Grinch has turned his back on the occasion and declared war on merriment and cheer. When a local girl, similarly disenchanted by the season’s shameless commercialism, takes an interest in the Grinch, even going so far as to nominate him for an award in the local practice of Whobillation, he decides to steal Christmas from the community in a final bid to crush the town’s spirits once and for all.
Narrated by Anthony Hopkins and featuring a powerhouse performance from Jim Carrey, Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas dominated the charts in 2000 and earned itself the enduring title of the second highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time. Largely dismissed by critics, it nevertheless went on to be considered a Christmas classic and ultimately lead the way for subsequent cinematic expeditions to Whoville.
While the dated aesthetic of How The Grinch Stole Christmas might now pale in comparison with the effects-laden Horton Hears A Who, the film is still a massive achievement, the filmmakers duly realising the book’s unique stylings with invention and verve. Carrey is a revelation as the eponymous grouch, gurning and gumming his way through a series of apparently custom-made slapstick set-pieces with a commitment and abandon that proves utterly timeless. Unhindered by the extensive prosthetics (let’s face it, Jim Carrey’s features were pretty rubbery to begin with), the actor is such a delight in the role that you really must ask why he hasn’t done more with his talents in recent years.
The supporting players are similarly good-humoured in their portrayal of the Whovians, with the crowd scenes really selling the sets that they take place in and the community that they conspire to create. Jeffrey Tambor is suitably boo-hiss as the town’s Machiavellian mayor, his self-important streak as wide as the snowflake upon which Whoville is based, while the ever-dependable Christine Baranski delivers a performance so breathtakingly breathless that it is impossible not to feel swept up in her charisma and charm. If newcomer Taylor Michel Momsen disappoints as the mawkishly innocent and painfully tone-deaf Cindy Lou Who – and she does. She really, really does – it is to the film’s credit that it is so relentlessly enjoyable that her evident inexperience is all but forgiven the moment focus shifts back to Carrey.
The real star of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and the aspect which most stands up to scrutiny today, is its inspired script, a masterclass in black humour. Self-referential and wonderfully subversive, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s adapted screenplay is a joy from start to finish. Comprised largely of rhyming couplets, their playful revelry in rhetoric – both articulated by Hopkins and attacked by Carey – is high on quotability, the writers making the most of Dr. Seuss’ ear for dialogue and embracing it as a means to have their say on a number of topics. Perhaps the biggest success of Howard’s film is that it is as much an indictment of Christmas as it is a traditional celebration of it.
A Christmas movie which dares to conform but not necessarily to concede; an adaptation which embraces its namesake while developing the story even further; and a career-best performance from The Mask himself, How The Grinch Stole Christmas is essential viewing this holiday season. Witty, fun and unafraid to have a quick pop at religion between consumerist critiques, I just wish the Grinch could steal Christmas every year.